WHO releases strategy to halve the global impact of snakebite

Dr David Williams, of the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, played a key role in developing a new World Health Organisation (WHO) strategy to reduce the death and disability burden of snakebite.

­The ambitious long-term plan, Snakebite envenoming: A strategy for prevention and control, was officially launched in Geneva In May. The $US136 million program is the first truly global strategy, and aims to save 40,000 lives per year by 2025 and halve the overall impact of snakebites by 2030.

University of Melbourne snakebite expert Dr David Williams, who heads the Australian Venom Research Unit in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, School of Biomedical Sciences, played a key role in developing the strategy in his role as Chair of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Snakebite Envenoming Working Group.

Northeast African carpet viper (Echis pyramidum)

The program, outlined in WHO’s strategic roadmap, plans to:

  • Empower and engage communities to increase prevention, risk reduction and avoidance of snakebites
  • Ensure treatments are safe, effective, affordable and accessible
  • Strengthen health systems to deliver better outcomes
  • Build a global coalition of partners to coordinate action and mobilise resources.

Snakes bite 5.4 million people globally each year, killing up to 138,000 and leaving 400,000 survivors with permanent physical and psychological disabilities.

The strategy confronts the problem in all affected countries and aims to ensure the response is integrated into overall efforts to improve health globally.

Dr Williams said the considerable challenge required a globally coordinated effort combining political, technical and financial support from countries, development partners, philanthropists and other stakeholders. He said its success depended upon WHO receiving funding from governments, donors and development partners.

Ashe's spitting cobra (Naja ashei)

Snakebites particularly affect people living in developing countries, owing to the costs of treatment—which is often ineffective—and access problems.

One early pilot project could see antivenom stockpiled in Sub-Saharan Africa, where about 32,000 people die each year after being bitten by snakes.

“Investing in this work not only benefits victims of snakebite, but also works to improve health systems and health outcomes for whole communities, amplifying the impact and value of this approach,” Dr Williams said.

“The plan calls for snakebite envenoming to be incorporated within national and regional health plans and aligned with global commitments to achieving Universal Health Coverage and the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Dr David Williams

The move follows years of hard work by Dr Williams and others.

“Over the last four years, concerted action by the international community saw snakebite elevated to the WHO’s list of neglected tropical diseases,” Dr Williams said.

“This included governments of affected countries and organisations such as the University of Melbourne-based Global Snakebite Initiative, Médecins sans Frontières, Health Action International and the US-based Lillian Lincoln Foundation.”

Dr Williams was recently featured in a BBC article to discuss the strategy. The strategy has also received coverage in Nature and The Lancet.

Read the full strategy here.